How Smartphone ‘Phubbing’ Is Destroying Relationships


Money, sex and children aren’t the only stressors on a relationship. Your smartphone could be to blame if your relationship has gone off the rails, according to a new study.

James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, led the study to determine how detrimental smartphones can be to relationships. The study found that partner phone snubbing directly impacted depression through relationship satisfaction and even life satisfaction.

“We zeroed in on measuring something called ‘phubbing’ (a fusion of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’). It’s how often your romantic partner is distracted by his or her smartphone in your presence,” Roberts wrote in The Conversation. “With more and more people using the attention-siphoning devices – the typical American checks his or her smartphone once every six-and-a-half minutes, or roughly 150 times each day – phubbing has emerged as a real source of conflict. For example, in one study, 70 percent of participants said that phubbing hurt their ability to interact with their romantic partners.”

Flickr Image Courtesy: mateoutah, CC BY-SA 2.0
Courtesy: mateoutah/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The study surveyed 175 adults in romantic relationships in the United States and had them fill out a questionnaire. They then completed a nine-item Partner Phubbing Scale that measured how often some felt phubbed by his or her partner’s smartphone use.

Items on the questionnaire included “my partner places his or her smartphone where they can see it when we are together” and “my partner uses his or her smartphone when we are out together.” The participants also completed a scale that measured how much smartphone use was considered to be a source of conflict in their relationships.

Smartphones were considered to be a relationship stressor in the same league as money, children and sex. Those who reported to be at the receiving end of phubbing also reported higher levels of conflict over smartphone use than those who reported less phubbing.

“Something as seemingly innocent as using a smartphone in the presence of a romantic partner undermined the quality of the relationship,” Roberts wrote. “This can create a domino effect: As our study also showed, when we’re not happily in love, we are also less likely to be satisfied, overall, with life. We’re also more likely to report that we are depressed.”

Higher levels of smartphone-related conflict reduced levels of relationship satisfaction. Roberts provided two possible suggestions for relationship problems involving smartphones.

He said the “Displacement Hypothesis” suggests that time spent on smartphones displaces, or reduces, more meaningful interactions with a loved one, weakening the relationship. The “Smartphone Conflict Theory” suggests that the device is a source of conflict and leads to fighting, which can undermine any sense of satisfaction with a partner and the relationship.

A ‘Stop Phubbing’ campaign group, started in Australia, was set up to address the problem and provides posters to discourage phubbing at events. Roberts said phubbing can be a bigger problem than it might seem.

“Even if we act like it’s no big deal, it still stings whenever we’re phubbed by our romantic partner. In a sense, our romantic partners are choosing their phone over us,” Roberts wrote. “We probably feel a little less important and the relationship feels a little less secure.”